BOB GARFIELD: The sullied name of Clear Channel Communications is once again clear, at least as far as the FCC is concerned. In exchange for regulators scrapping all of the indecency charges against the radio behemoth, some of which stemmed from its broadcasts of the Howard Stern Show, all Clear Channel had to do was fork over 1.75 million dollars. The deal represents the largest settlement ever between the FCC and broadcasters, and it could have ended much worse for Clear Channel. A Bill pending in Congress right now would boost indecency fines from 27,000 dollars to half a million dollars per uncouth utterance. And that sum could theoretically have been multiplied by the number of Clear Channel stations that aired dirty words. But as Jacques Steinberg reported in the New York Times this week, the prospects for any indecency legislation making it to the president's desk this year are dim. He joins me now. Jacques, welcome to On the Media.
JACQUES STEINBERG: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I know this is positively indecent, but what with the handover of sovereignty and Abu Ghraib and presidential funerals, until we read your story this week, we'd forgotten all about indecency. Where does the indecency question stand in the FCC and on Capitol Hill?
JACQUES STEINBERG: Well, as you say, there's sort of two tracks. I mean firstly, in terms of Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a relatively simple bill that would substantially raise the penalties. The Senate has been a little slower. Their Senate Commerce Committee has approved a measure that would do lots of other things including, you know, explore the issue of whether violence on television needs to be curbed. The Senate bill actually raises the question yet again of, you know, how big should we allow some of these companies to be and what should we permit them to own, and the House bill doesn't want to touch that, in part because the president has said that he supports letting media companies get bigger. But, as you say, events have sort of overtaken this, and I think there are some people on the Hill who, who don't think it seems quite as compelling now as it did, and maybe they've accomplished what they wanted to by sort of going on the record, either approving a bill in the house or, or being supportive of it in the Senate.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, on the subject of flogging the decency question for what it's worth politically, in your piece in the New York Times on Monday, you quoted a man named Charles Cook, who is the editor of a political newsletter, saying "looks like a cheap date to me." Can you tell me what he was getting at?
JACQUES STEINBERG: I think Charlie was trying to make the point -- and Charlie is very much down the middle on this sort of stuff -- that it's the easiest thing in the world to say that you're for apple pie, you know, motherhood and keeping the nation's airwaves clean. It's quite another matter to actually stand up in the Senate or the House and vote for a bill and ensure that that bill gets to the president's desk.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, it must be very difficult to write a piece of legislation such as this, because if you are broad in defining what constitutes indecency, the law is too vague to enforce, and if you're too specific by listing, I don't know, a series of dirty words, you take the risk of being an object of ridicule, you know, à la George Carlin's "7 words you can't say on TV."
JACQUES STEINBERG: And in fact, they've completely tabled the sort of arguably open question about what is it that you can't say, and instead taken what might be the easier question of, you know, how high should these fines be. You know, a lot of the broadcasters have said that where the most good could be done would be in the clarifying of these standards, but, as you say, who would want to be the person who actually has to sift through that?
BOB GARFIELD: So let's go back to the FCC. The 1.7 million dollar settlement which was finally made official on Thursday is a large number, but it certainly isn't anywhere near 500,000 dollars per utterance. Do you know what kind of formula they put to agree at - on that figure?
JACQUES STEINBERG: I'm not sure of the formula, but it's indeed a compromise. In April the FCC proposed fining Clear Channel 495,000 dollars, because a listener of a station in Florida that broadcasts the Howard Stern program wrote in to complain about a couple of segments he had heard, but there are dozens of other complaints against Clear Channel stations that are various stages in the pipeline, and Clear Channel agreed to pay 1.75 million dollars to sort of clear the decks, and I'm sure that if all those other complaints were run down, it would be millions of dollars that Clear Channel would be on the hook for.
BOB GARFIELD: There was a lot of talk in the early part of the indecency discussion about the chilling effect of raising fines and of the saber-rattling about challenging license renewals for stations that violate the decency rules. Do you believe that we're seeing that chilling effect in programming right now?
JACQUES STEINBERG: Well, you know, the New York Times and other papers have reported sort of anecdotally some funny things that are happening -- I don't mean "funny" like "laugh out loud," but I mean just sort of some strange things like radio stations taking off their playlists songs like The Bitch Is Back by Elton John or Bitch by the Rolling Stones, and M.S. Communications Station in Indianapolis used the "dump" button, that sort of electronic delay to sort of bleep Rush Limbaugh one day on the words "urinate, orgy and damn" - D A M N - and I--
BOB GARFIELD: And in fact, we are using the "dump" button to delete the words "dump button," so-- [LAUGHTER] this is just snowballing.
JACQUES STEINBERG: I think there certainly is some sense in Congress that maybe this is looking a little too Puritanical and, gee, is the pendulum swinging too far?
BOB GARFIELD: One final question. I don't know if you're a betting man or not, but you know, if you were, would you say that a decency bill would be on the president's desk before the first Tuesday in November or no?
JACQUES STEINBERG: I just don't think it's knowable at this time. I will say that it seems far less assured now that they will agree on something than it did, you know, sort of right after the Super Bowl when everybody was all excited, excuse the expression, about this.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jacques. Well, thank you very much.
JACQUES STEINBERG: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Jacques Steinberg writes about media for the New York Times. [MUSIC]